Zoobiquity: What animals can teach us about health and the science of healing

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  March 2013:

Zoobiquity:  What animals can teach us about health and the science of healing   by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D. & Kathryn Bowers Knopf (1745 Broadway,  New York,  NY 10019),  2012.  308 pages,  hardcover.  $26.95.


Animals have long been involved in human health care,  as sources of purported medicines,  subjects of experiments,  and as witches’ familiars. “The idea that animals have healing powers reaches back to the dawn of human civilization,”  explains Creighton University medical historian Carrie E. Muffett,  M.D.,  on the Creighton pet-assisted therapy web site.  “The Mayans, for example,  believed that each of us is given a ‘soul animal’ to serve as a protective guide in earthly life.  The Egyptian deity Anubis,  physician of the gods,  bore a canine head.  In ancient Greece,  the healing cult of Aesculapius used dogs to lick the sick with their tongues.  Florence Nightingale promoted pet ownership as a way to ease the suffering of the chronically ill.  One of the earliest recorded uses of structured animal therapy was at the York Retreat in England,”  founded in 1792. Child psychiatrist Boris Levinson (1908-1984) is credited with introducing dogs into therapeutic treatment of emotionally challenged pediatric patients,  beginning in the 1960s.  Levinson’s work inspired Michael J. McCulloch (1944-1985),  who founded the Delta Society in 1977 to promote pet-assisted therapy. But the roles of animals relative to human health care have already been much discussed and debated. Summarizing current knowledge and practice,  Zoobiquity offers little by way of original insight into these frequent issues of contention. Instead,  Zoobiquity presents the One Health approach to investigating animal and human health issues.  Co-author Barbara Natterson-Horowitz,  a cardiologist who has treated zoo animals,  is among the leading voices for the international One Health network.  The book Zoobiquity shares the same title as some of Natterson-Horowitz’s lectures on the One Health concept. One Health begins with the premise that animal and human diseases are mostly shared,  having common origins and treatments.  The One Health network takes no collective position on the issue of whether animal experimentation to find treatments for humans is ethical or morally justified. Sidestepping that debate,  while welcoming the participation of people who are doing relevant work on either side,  One Health encourages viewing diseases and disorders as a continuum,  which can often be prevented in humans by recognizing and preventing the spread of causal agents among animals.  Paying more attention to animals’ health needs,  in other words,  benefits both animals and humans––and can eliminate much laboratory use of animals,  as well as much needless killing to “stamp out” animal disease. Conversely,  “The results of human clinical investigations benefit many species of animals every day all over the world,”  Natterson-Horowitz told Cynthia Lee of UCLA Today in 2011.  “Every day veterinarians reach into human medical literature to help guide their care of animals.” Zoobiquity offers examples of how the evolution of diseases and conditions as result of changing human lifestyles can be seen in the animals who share our homes and consume our refuse.  Just as the average American human girth has been expanding for several decades,  American rodents are becoming plumper too.  “City rats crawling around the alleys in urban Baltimore grew about 6% fatter per decade between 1948 and 2006,”  write Natterson-Horowitz and Zoobiquity co-author Kathryn Bowers,   a medical journalist,  “presumably because their food came almost entirely from human garbage cans and pantries.” Rats chowing down on the remnants of French fries,  hamburgers,  corn chips,  sugary pies,  and the wide range of products made with high-fructose corn syrup responded much as humans have,  even though rats have much faster metabolisms. Dogs,  like humans,  may experience fainting.  “Some vaso-vagal feinting in dogs and cats happens when they’re physically restrained against their will,   an especially terrifying situation for many pets,”  the authors write––although the symptoms may not be recognized by human companions, Diseases classed as zoonotic pass from animals to humans.  But humans and animals also share many diseases that are not considered “zoonotic” because they are not spread from individual to individual. The potentially lethal skin cancer melanoma is one example,  “diagnosed in the bodies of animals from penguins to buffalo,”  Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers write.  I have had experience with this.  A dog I had named Dharma,  an adopted Dachshund,  lived indoors.  She rarely spent any time in the sun,  the primary trigger for human melanoma.  Nonetheless,  Dharma developed a melanoma on her underbelly when she was about ten years old.  I remember when I found it.  It was just as the doctors at the New York University Medical Center Dermatology Department described melanomas when I worked there:  black, raised with irregular borders.  A simple surgical procedure removed the lesion.  There was no recurrence in the remainder of Dharma’s long life.  Early recognition and treatment were the keys to her survival.  In this instance,  awareness of melanoma in humans may have saved my dog. Concludes Natterson-Horowitz,  “My medical education included stern warnings against the tantalizing pull to anthropomorphize.  In those days,  noticing pain or sadness on the face of an animal was criticized as projection, fantasy,  or sloppy sentimentality.  But scientific advancements of the past two decades suggest that we should adopt an updated perspective.  Seeing too much of ourselves in other animals might not be the problem we think it is. Underappreciating our own animal natures may be the greater limitation.”    ––Debra J. White

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